Controversial plans to demolish a disused bus station and transform it into a new hotel and student accommodation are progressing despite legal challenges and local opposition.
The Alumno Scheme is looking to replace the old Queen’s Street bus depot in Colchester, Essex.
Before its life as a transport hub, the Queen Street site was once the location of a grand 1,200 seat theatre, dubbed the Theatre Royal.
That burnt down in 1917, and after a mixed history through the 20th Century, a bus depot opened.
The bus depot closed in 2015 and since then the site has been completely disused.
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In a cabinet meeting last Wednesday (January 27), the council voted to assign money in a new budget to progress with the plans to transform the site.
That budget will be voted on at the end of this month.
New plans are needed, but there is an increasing opposition to the scheme.
Here’s why the plans to turn a disused bus depot into student accommodation and a new hotel are causing controversy.
What’s included in the plans?
The site of the proposed development sits on the former Queen Street bus depot, which closed in 2015.
In its place will be a new public pedestrian space anchored by an 87-bed hotel and 336 student rooms which are part of a bigger scheme known as the St. Botolph’s regeneration masterplan.
The masterplan is set to rejuvenate the eastern quarter of Colchester Town Centre stepping south from Castle Park.
The wider plan will include a new Curzon cinema, a new business park, and the ongoing investment at the Firstsite site.
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The Queen Street site measures 2.6 acres, and a new development would bring a fresh lease of life to an area which has been left empty for nearly six years.
Private student accommodation within the town centre is much needed, with the county’s largest university campus a few miles away near Wivenhoe.
And with domestic tourism set to increase in the coming years following the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s understandable why a large hotel in the town centre is desirable for the local economy.
But the Alumno Scheme has been a rocky journey for the council, whose Liberal Democrat-led cabinet are behind the plans.
“It’s simply not acceptable”
Controversial legal planning powers have been approved for use by the local council, which has sparked anger from nearby residents as well as Essex County Council.
Essex County Council own the land where the proposed development is set to take place, but Colchester Borough Council has already made deals with developers.
Colchester Borough Council hopes to solve any issues by having discussions with all affected parties – such as local residents and businesses who will be impacted by road closures and development disrupting on and off-street parking.
But if they are unsuccessful with talks, the council will enact planning powers which will override the regular process.
This has sparked outrage from the Conservative opposition in Colchester Borough Council.
Conservative councillor Simon Crow said: “It’s simply not acceptable to take away residents’ access and ask them to park in a public car park some way away from their homes.
“They won’t be able to receive deliveries, sell their homes, have visitors park and are expected to walk some distance through the town if arriving home late at night.”
The Conservative’s deputy leader in Colchester, Cllr Lewis Barber, added: “The idea that one council would get into a legal dispute with another to bring about development no one seems to want because they signed a terrible contact is quite incredible.
“I am delighted that Essex County Council are planning to side with Colchester residents and fight this incomprehensible decision.”
“This makes my heart sink”
Another opponent of the plans is Colchester‘s Conservative MP Will Quince.
In a series of tweets, Mr Quince said: “Colchester Borough Council are planning to take steps to override third party rights on the Queen Street site / Alumno development including the restrictive covenant held by Essex County Council despite giving assurances to the contrary over the summer.
“A very worrying situation – a legal dispute has begun between Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council over the third party rights over the Queen St / Alumno development proposal.
“Essex County Council is right to fight for residents on this issue.
“Colchester Borough Council’s Cabinet is stuck between a rock and a hard place – a situation of their own making, simply because they rushed into a contract.
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“They knew of the third party rights, were warned many times and proceeded in the face of considerable public opposition.”
Referencing a proposed cultural development in York, he tweeted: “This makes my heart sink.
“This is just the sort of scheme Colchester could and should have had on Queen Street instead of the Alumno student flats plans.
“If York can have a Roman themed attraction, surely the first Roman capital of Britain could?”
“A powerful catalyst”
Despite the opposition, the council are pushing ahead with the plans.
Colchester Borough Council’s Portfolio Holder for Business and Resources, Cllr David King, said that the plans in their current form will inspire further development in the town.
He said: “As well as the immediate and direct benefits of the student accommodation and hotel developments, the scheme will provide a powerful catalyst to other, adjacent schemes, such as the proposed grow-on space for creative and digital businesses and digital working hub in the former bus garage.
“And through the increased footfall and vitality generated, it should help stimulate investment in the nearby Priory Walk shopping centre and help sustain other retail and hospitality businesses deeply impacted by the current crisis.
“The scheme will also deliver up to 60 long-term jobs and 300 jobs during the construction phase.
“This will be hugely helpful, when so many jobs are being lost and when we know the economic shocks of the pandemic will be with us for years to come.
“These students, their families and new visitors will bring between £2m-£3m a year into the local economy.”
Aware of the outrage from other local politicians and residents, he added: “There have been understandable concerns about regeneration on this site but done well there are benefits also.
“Both the Alumno and grow-on scheme will significantly improve access to, and visibility of, the significant historic assets nearby, most notably the Roman Wall, in turn improving our tourism offer.
“Landmark developments up and down the country have been through a tough time in the last few years, even before the pandemic struck, but in that period the council has continued to invest in the St Botolph’s Quarter and is currently pursuing even greater investment through the Town Deal fund, which will enable big improvements to be made across the whole town.
“I look forward to the development as the next significant step in the regeneration of the St Botolph’s area but regret the inconvenience construction will cause for some nearby residents and businesses.
“We are looking at the concerns this raises.
“If Cabinet agrees we proceed after careful review of objections and representations, it will be alive to the benefits to footfall and vibrancy, to businesses and the many they employ at this terrible time.
“And we will be determined to ensure those affected are given help with mitigation, alternative access and statutory compensation.”
The council’s annual budget, which includes fund for further development on the Queen Street site, will be voted on later this month.